Two weeks ago, I woke up to find an inbox full of emails about a rape apologist op-ed published in my college newspaper, The Daily Princetonian. The author argued, basically, that women should be held equally responsible in situations where drunk, nonconsensual sex occurs, and shouldn’t be able to accuse their partners of rape. The op-ed sparked a controversy on campus that resulted in the publication of two subsequent op-eds, dealing with the issue of what consent means.
In conversations with people over the next week, I heard this argument many times: “What happens when two people have drunk sex, neither of them consent, and the next morning, the woman wants to accuse her partner of rape?” Despite the heteronormative assumptions here (we seem to think that rape only occurs between a man and a woman), I think the real problem is that we assume that this is the way that most rape accusations occur.
But psychologist David Lisak says that this is actually a dangerously wrong assumption. Lisak researches the rapists who haven’t been caught, people he calls “undetected rapists.” These are men who have committed sexual assault, but have never been charged or convicted.
Joseph Shapiro of NPR reports: “[Lisak] found them by, over a 20-year period, asking some 2,000 men in college questions like this: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did not want to, because they were too intoxicated [on alcohol or drugs] to resist your sexual advances?” Or: “Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used physical force [twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.] if they didn’t cooperate?”
About 1 in 16 men answered “yes” to these or similar questions. That’s just over 6 percent. That means a staggering amount of undocumented sexual assault on college campuses. And we’re not talking mistakes or misconstrued intentions, we’re talking about deliberate sexual assault. Pretty terrifying, right?
It gets scarier. Lisak says that it was actually pretty easy to get these men to talk, even though they’re admitting to having committed egregious crimes. “They are very forthcoming,” he says. “In fact, they are eager to talk about their experiences. They’re quite narcissistic as a group — the offenders — and they view this as an opportunity, essentially, to brag.”
Lisak found that many students who commit rape are serial rapists. On college campuses, repeat predators account for 9 out of every 10 rapes. And they look for the most vulnerable women on campus – freshmen women. These men, Lisak says, don’t think of themselves as rapists. They don’t use the weapons usually associated with rape. Instead, they use alcohol.
This shows that when we talk about rape on college campuses, we are having the wrong conversation. Most of the sexual assault that occurs is unreported, because women are afraid to speak up. They’re told that what happened to them isn’t rape. But the fact is, the vast majority of people who commit rape do it on purpose. It’s not a question of good intentions and misunderstanding, it’s premeditated assault. And the only way we can begin to stop sexual assault on college campuses is by recognizing this, and refusing to apologize for rape or blame the victim.
Photo from the U.S. Army's website.